White House Letter: Bush shows a flair for the campaign trailWASHINGTON George W. Bush says he enjoys being president. But judging from his performance on the stump over the last few weeks, he enjoys campaigning for president even more.
From rallies in Ohio, to attacks on Senator John Kerry's economic record in Pennsylvania, to "Ask President Bush" events with rapturous Republican crowds, the president has emerged as a kinetic stage performer with a personality that seems to fit the frantic quality of the campaign. In Washington, Bush delivers serious speeches, tangles with the press and can appear stolid, defensive and halting.
But on the campaign trail, where the invited crowds are kept friendly because opponents are arrested for wearing anti-Bush T-shirts or dragged from events by their hair, there is a different Bush. He is looser and livelier, a former Andover cheerleader who has learned how to rouse the crowd in the argot of ordinary America.
"So I'm here asking for the vote, see," Bush said at a recent invitation-only "Ask President Bush" event in Nashua, New Hampshire, where he paced happily in his shirtsleeves, microphone in hand, in the middle of a packed high school gym. "That's what you've got to do. I think you've got to get out amongst the people and say, 'I want your vote.'" The line is Bush's standard opener, which instantly telescopes his message, connects him to the crowd, then allows him to transition into a plea that gets applause: "And I'm also here to ask for your help. See, I don't think you can win elections alone. I think it requires citizens who are willing to register people to vote, to put up the signs, to turn out the vote. And that's what I'm here to ask you to do. I'd like your help as we're coming down the stretch." Of course, voters who dislike Bush hardly find his act compelling; to them it is just that, an act. "I wish he was half a good a president as he is a campaigner," said Representative Rahm Emanuel, Democrat of Illinois, a former top aide to President Bill Clinton.
But there is no disputing the president's enthusiasm for this part of his job - particularly now that polls show him leading - and the way the invited crowds lap up the president's colloquialisms, malapropisms and Texas twang.
(It intensifies west of the Mississippi.) There is also no disputing that Bush can falter in front of more skeptical audiences, as he did at a convention of minority journalists in Washington last month. The president got so twisted up in response to a question about tribal sovereignty - "tribal sovereignty means that it's sovereign" - that the crowd started laughing at him. In short, Bush is at his best in front of the adoring crowds that his campaign has arranged for him in the battleground states. "O.K., I'm going to appear to be sophisticated, but I'm a wreck," a woman said before she asked Bush a question at the event in New Hampshire. Bush laughed appreciatively. "That's what I try to do, too - I try to be sophisticated," he said, to big guffaws from the crowd.
"I have trouble pulling if off, though, you know?" Encouraged, the woman plunged ahead. "I do want to say it's an honor to be here today to meet you, President," she said. "O.K., and New Hampshire chicks love you. I got to say that." Bush laughed again. "So far you haven't acted very sophisticated, I admit, you know?" he teased. Then he gave the woman a big smile, she beamed back and the crowd laughed again. Even some Democrats give Bush begrudging good marks for his style on the stump. "He doesn't have the stamina of a Clinton or the charisma of a Reagan, but when he's on his game and he's not tired, he has a folksy, down-home approach that works for him," said Paul Begala, the CNN talk show host who worked for Clinton in the White House and now is informally advising Kerry's campaign. When Bush is tired, often some strange things do come out of his mouth.
Last Monday at a rally in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, he was into his usual riff against malpractice suits when he said, without missing a beat, that "too many ob/gyns aren't able to practice their love with women all across the country," apparently a crossed wire with the president's stump speech to religious groups, in which he invariably says that government can't put love in a person's heart. The day before, in Parkersburg, West Virginia, Bush said that he asked Congress last September for $87 million to help pay for "armor and body parts" in Afghanistan and Washington. And two days before that, he mangled a favorite line about the Democratic ticket, Kerry and John Edwards, who were two of four senators to vote for the use of force in Iraq but against the $87 million spending package. "Two of those four," Bush cheerily concluded, "are my running mate and his opponent." E-mail: email@example.com Tomorrow: John Vinocur writes on a less polarized and divided America.